Common Mistakes Made on Beneficiary Designations

Assets like life insurance, retirement accounts and annuities are governed by beneficiary designations.
Assets like life insurance, retirement accounts and annuities are governed by beneficiary designations which override your will.

Many accounts and other assets are governed by beneficiary designations. Examples include life insurance, 401(k)s, IRAs, and annuities. These assets rely on contractual provisions with the financial institution to designate who receives the benefits upon the death of the owner.

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “Beneficiary Designations – The Overlooked Minefield of Estate Planning” describes several mistakes that people make with beneficiary designations and some ideas on how to avoid problems for you and your family members.

Believing that Your Will is More Powerful Than It Really Is. Many people mistakenly think that their will takes precedence over a beneficiary designation form. This is not true. Your will controls the disposition of assets in your “probate” estate. However, the accounts with contractual beneficiary designations aren’t governed by your will because they pass outside of probate. That is why you need to review your beneficiary designations whenever you review your estate plan.

Allowing Accounts to Fall Through the Cracks. Inattention is another thing that can lead to unintended outcomes. A prior employer 401(k) account can be what is known as “orphaned,” which means that the account stays with the former employer and isn’t updated to reflect the account holder’s current situation. It’s not unusual to forget about an account you started at your first job and fail to update the primary beneficiary, which could be a former spouse.

Not Having a Contingency Plan. Another thing people don’t think about is that a beneficiary may predecease them. It is important to name a contingent or secondary beneficiary in the event the first beneficiary is not survivig.

Not Paying Attention to a Per Stirpes Election. If a person names several beneficiaries (such as children) as primary beneficiaries to share equally in the account or life insurance policy at the owner’s death, what happens if one of the beneficiaries is not surviving? Some beneficiary designation forms state that the deceased beneficiary’s share automatically goes to the other surviving beneficiaries. Other beneficiary designation forms give the owner the option to state that the deceased beneficiary’s share should pass to the deceased beneficiary’s children. This is known as a per stirpes election. Many times people are unaware as to which option they have chosen on the beneficiary designation form.

Naming a Minor or Incapacitated Person as a Beneficiary. If a minor or incapacitated person is named as beneficiary, unless the beneficiary designation form allows for the appointment of a custodian or trustee to accept the benefits on behalf of the minor or incapacitated person, a court-appointed guardian may be necessary for the minor or incapaciated person to receive the benefits. Also keep in mind that if an incapaciated person you’ve named as beneficiary is receiving government benefits, distributions from a retirement account, annuity, or life insurance policy, may jeopardize his or her eligiblity to receive the government benefits.

It’s smart to retain copies of all communications when updating beneficiary designations in hard copy or electronically. These copies of correspondence, website submissions and received confirmations from account administrators should be kept with your estate planning documents in a safe location.

Remember that you should review your estate plan and beneficiary designations every few years to make sure that they are coordinated and that they say what your really want.

You may also be interested in https://www.galliganmanning.com/trust-owned-life-insurance-in-your-estate-plan/.

Reference: Kiplinger (March 4, 2020) “Beneficiary Designations – The Overlooked Minefield of Estate Planning”

 

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Elder Abuse Continues as a Billion-dollar Problem

Elder abuse continues to be a problem for seniors, but individuals can take steps to protect themselves in their estate plans and finances.

Aging baby boomers are a giant target for scammers. A report issued last year from a federal agency, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau highlighted the growth in banks and brokerage firms that reported suspicious activity in elderly clients’ accounts. The monthly filing of suspicious activity reports tied to elder financial exploitation increased four times from 2013 through 2017, according to a recent article from the Rome-News Tribune titled “Financial abuse steals billions from seniors each year.”

When the victim knew the other person, a family member or an acquaintance, the average loss was around $50,000. When the victim did not have a personal relationship with their scammer, the average loss was around $17,000.  See this recent blog for more background.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/elder-financial-abuse-is-increasing/

What can you do to protect yourself, now and in the future, from becoming a victim? There are many ways to build a defense that will make it less likely that you or a loved one will become a victim of these scams.

First, don’t put off taking steps to protect yourself, while you are relatively young. Putting safeguards into place now can make you less vulnerable in the future. If you are suffer bad health and lack of capacity later, it may be too late.

Create a durable power of attorney as part of your estate plan. The power of attorney names a trusted person you name as your legal representative or agent, who can manage your financial affairs if need be.  You should also consider using a trust which owns assets during your lifetime.  While it is true that family members are often the ones who commit financial elder abuse, you’ll need to put your trust in someone. Usually this is an adult child or a relative. You may also consider a bank as a trustee.  They will charge for their services, but their professionalism makes a bank an excellent choice.

It may also help to bring your agent, trustee and other loved ones into the discussion about assisting with your finances well before incapacity and be open with them about what you want your fiduciaries to do.  Of course, many people are hesitant to discuss finances openly, but as Justice Brandeis remarked over a hundred years ago, “Sunshine is said to be the best of disinfectants.”  Having multiple people aware of what is happening and what your fiduciaries are doing may prevent one bad actor from attempting or getting away with elder abuse.

Consider the guaranteed income approach to retirement planning. Figuring out how to generate a steady stream of income as you face the cognitive declines that occur in later years might be a challenge. Planning for this in advance will be better.  Social Security is one of the most valuable sources of guaranteed income. If you will receive a pension, try not to do a lump sum payout with the intent to invest the money on your own. That lump sum makes you a rich target for scammers.

Consider rolling over 401(k) accounts into Roth accounts, or simply into one account. If you have one or more workplace retirement plans, consolidating them will make it easier for you or your representative to manage investments and required minimum distributions.

Make sure that you have an estate plan in place, or that your estate plan is current. Over time, families grow and change, financial situations change and the intentions you had ten, twenty or even thirty years ago, may not be the same as they are today. An experienced estate planning attorney can ensure that your wishes today are followed, through the use of a will, trust and other estate planning strategies.

Resource: Rome News-Tribune (April 27, 2020) “Financial abuse steals billions from seniors each year.”

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Do I have to Pay the Estate’s Debt?

People often have debts when they pass away such as credit cards and medical bills, but family shouldn’t pay those debts themselves outside of the estate.

When a family is grieving after the death of a loved one, the last thing any of them wants to deal with is unpaid debts and debt collectors.  But, sooner or later creditors must be dealt with, and one of the first questions clients ask is whether they have to pay the estate’s debt.

nj.com’s recent article asks “Is mom liable for my dead father’s credit card debt?” The answer: generally, any unpaid debts are paid from the deceased person’s estate, which means from the estate’s assets only.  In fact, fair collection laws require debt collectors to let you know that you aren’t responsible for that debt.

In many states, family members, including the surviving spouse, typically aren’t required to pay the debts from their own assets, unless they co-signed on the account or loan.  In other words, if they would have been liable for the debt themselves, they are still responsible.  If the debt belongs to the decedent, such as a creditor card they used, then only the estate is responsible to pay the debt.  There are a few potential exceptions, such as the IRS collecting estate income from anyone who benefits from the estate, but not many.

All the stuff that a person owns at the time of death, including everything from money in the bank to their possessions to debts they owe, is called an estate. When the deceased person has debt, the executor of the estate will go through the probate process.  There is a lot more to this process, see here for a fuller description.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/probate-dissolving-the-mystery/

During the probate process, all the deceased’s debts are paid off from the estate’s assets. Some assets—like retirement accounts, IRAs and life insurance proceeds—may pass outside of probate and aren’t included in the probate process. As a result, these assets may not be available to pay creditors. Other estate assets can be sold to pay off outstanding debts.

Now, this portion is very state specific sometimes with very specific requirements, so you should do it at the advice of an attorney.  A relative or the estate executor will typically notify any creditors, like credit card companies, when that person passes away. The creditor will then contact the executor about any balances due. Note: the creditor can’t add any additional fees, while the estate is being settled.  At this point, assuming there is enough money, the executor will pay the estate’s debt from estate assets.

If there’s not enough money in the estate to pay the estate’s debts, then the executor has a very important task.  Every state has an order of priority to satisfy debts such as administrative debts (attorney’s fees, accountant’s fees, court costs), priority debts and then general creditors.  Different states also have different rules about whether you have to satisfy one creditor to the exclusion of the other.  The executor, with the assistance of an attorney, should pay the estate’s debt according to that order of priority.  The executor and the heirs aren’t responsible for these debts and shouldn’t pay them. Unlike some debts, like a mortgage or a car loan, most debts aren’t secured. Therefore, the credit card company may need to write off that debt as a loss.  As an aside, there might be an opportunity to settle or negotiate debts on this basis, though there are tax implications to the estate for writing off the debt.

If your loved one passes away with debt, don’t pay it.  Talk with an attorney about opening an estate for that deceased loved one and discuss how or whether to pay the estate’s debts.

Reference: nj.com (Jan. 15, 2020) “Is mom liable for my dead father’s credit card debt?”

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